A number of great cities have a special association with chess, usually because they have, or had, a central chess club where rank-and-file chess players could mingle with those destined for greatness. Moscow, naturally, is one example — although its Central Chess Club has seen better days. New York, with its Marshall Chess Club, where such champions as Capablanca and Fischer played in purely local events, is another. London's heyday was back in the first half of the 19th century, when Simpson's Divan on the Strand was the place where the leading chess masters of Europe would battle against each other (in an impenetrable fug of cigar smoke), but also take on much weaker players in return for stake money.
Something of that great tradition has been revived in an unlikely outpost of what we once called the British Empire — Gibraltar. In February the Crown dependency completed its tenth annual chess festival, sponsored by Tradewise Insurance, whose global headquarters are on that rocky promontory. The festival has become the world's best-attended open tournament — and because it is open, any club chess player can take part, with the possibility of playing one of the world's strongest grandmasters.
This year, there were over 50 grandmasters competing, not just Britain's top two, Michael Adams and Nigel Short, but also such giants from further east as the Russian champion Peter Svidler and the world number ten, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan. Tradewise also had the bright idea of offering a £10,000 award for the top woman finisher, which attracted both Judit Polgár, far and away the strongest female chess player of all time, and the remarkable Chinese prodigy, 17-year-old Hou Yifan.
Hou was the sensation of the event. Not only did she beat Polgár in their individual game (the first time the Hungarian had ever lost as an adult to another woman), but going into the final round of ten, she was in sole lead. No woman has ever won a strong open tournament before; the Chinese girl was only deprived of that record because Nigel Short succeeded in winning his last round game while she only drew a thrilling encounter against Mamedyarov. Under the rules of the event, the two co-winners played a short match of two games with a maximum time allowance of just ten minutes per player. Short won, but it was lovely to see the broad grin on Hou's face when she shook hands to acknowledge defeat, showing she is not only a wonderful talent but also will be a great ambassador for chess worldwide.
I was in Gibraltar competing in the Challengers event, limited to players of below master strength. Craven, I know, but there was a reason beyond mere cowardice: games in the second-string event started at 10am in the beautifully situated Caleta Hotel, while the Open section games began at 3pm. This meant that participants in the Challengers could play their games, have a late lunch — and a recuperative glass of Rioja on the hotel terrace overlooking the Mediterranean — before spending the afternoon walking around the playing area to watch the games of the big boys (and girls).